A Space for Us

Resisting gentrification and artist displacement: Evans Contemporary, and the making and undoing of a downtown art scene

Evans Contemporary (photo by B Mroz)
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On April 3, a landmark decision was narrowly passed by City Council on behalf of developer Parkview Homes and the owners of the Black Horse and Pig’s Ear Taverns to forgo heritage designations on the two popular watering holes, ignoring the recommendations of city staff, the Peterborough Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (PACAC), the Electric City Culture Council (EC3), historian Elwood Jones of Trent Valley Archives, and a host of arts and culture supporters. The decision sets a precedent that is likely to have a profound impact on the future of the downtown and its lively arts community.

The two neighbourhood pubs, which bookend the already designated, ornate, Empire-style Morrow Building, were for sale for a song. The Black Horse, with its popular licensed restaurant, music venue, patio, and three upper storey apartments, was listed for $850,000, well below the cost of a semi-detached home in an undesirable part of Toronto. Since 1865, the “Piggy” has operated as a licensed hotel or bar, currently featuring local music.

Parkview Homes, best known for its generic subdivisions, promised a $20-million investment to redevelop the sites into 40 apartments, a figure representing a staggering half a million per unit, which council accepted without any formal contract to substantiate this commitment.

The term “hostile designation” was used to frame the recommended heritage preservation as an aggressive attempt to deprive the property owners of their hard-earned retirement, and a developer of the opportunity to invest in the community, despite the fact that both parties were aware that the property’s heritage designation was under review when the sale was proposed. The developer insisted that both buildings were beyond repair, though both have occupied apartments in their upper floors and have been issued liquor licenses for decades.

PACAC estimates its current backlog of recommended heritage buildings will take three years to process. Potentially many similar buildings could change hands and be demolished before their heritage status has been established.

The vote on the Pig’s Ear and the Black Horse represents open season for developers on undesignated heritage buildings. It is in direct conflict with many of the strategic directions of the Municipal Cultural Plan and the kind of small-business, walkable city that the DBIA is trying to champion. The ramifications of this decision go far beyond nostalgia for two neighbourhood pubs.

Peterborough is about to be swept up in the real estate frenzy that has turned Toronto and Vancouver into luxury condo wastelands, and seems blissfully unaware of the residual problems of over-commodifying densification. Toronto’s lack of rent controls on newer builds, and real estate prices which have almost quadrupled since 2000, coupled with the anticipated completion of the 407 toll highway, are fueling an expanding exodus to Peterborough. In light of this, is Peterborough about to lose its individuality and inherit a massive housing crisis?

Not least is the impact of this decision on the vulnerable arts community, who are dependent on many downtown heritage buildings for affordable studio space, performance venues, housing, as well as ambiance. With limited means, they have invested heavily in creating a multi-faceted, original downtown culture scene. The loss of artist spaces and venues paves the way for a mono-culture.

Evans Contemporary (photos by Paolo Fortin)

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A good example of the growth of Peterborough’s grassroots arts community and its unacknowledged contribution to preserving and reinvigorating these remnants of our glory days is Evans Contemporary.

“And who is Evans?” asked a friend when, out of the blue, a Facebook notice announced an art opening at a new gallery. Trepidatiously I entered the elegantly restored ground floor of a private Edwardian home, to find a superbly installed contemporary exhibit. It was Janine Marsh’s Room and Board, a collection of reimagined household furnishings. The porch glowed with lanterns and a rainbow flag hung from the rafter. Everyone crowded into the tiny candlelit kitchen for wine and cheese, with neighbourhood kids weaving in and out of adult legs in classic gallery poses. The gallery inspired many artists and art lovers in Peterborough that night.

Over the next two years, director and artist Paolo Fortin’s Evans Contemporary lived up to its reputation time and again for thought-provoking contemporary art from Europe, North America, and also Peterborough.

Fortin then took the operation downtown to the third floor of the historic but undesignated Braund Building, which wraps around the corner of Hunter and Water Streets. It’s a prime source of studio space for approximately 20 of Peterborough’s professional artists, with its high ceilings and arched windows. In two months and with multiple coats of paint, Fortin transformed two legal offices, which had been lost in a time tunnel of vintage linoleum and yellowing walls since the 40s, into a sleek and chic gallery with NYC flare. It was a risky move. The building had a grunge factor that would entice some, but turn off others; without elevators, it was no longer accessible; the homey charm of the neighbourhood was lost; and it was white—glaringly, unapologetically, white, right down to the floorboards.

Last summer, an 800 sq. ft. space became available off the courtyard of the Braund Building. Fortin took it. He removed the false ceiling that covered wood panelling and exposed the 13-foot walls. With a team of family and friends like Generation Solar, he drywalled, painted, pulled century-old nails and scraped machine oil off the wooden floor, cleaned up the jungle of electrical wires, built a new warehouse door. He christened the courtyard with a name based on its history—Bankers’ Common—and strung lights on the ceiling of the carriage entrance.

It was an unseasonably pleasant night in November when Evans held its first opening in the new space for Toronto artist Brian Rideout. Outside on a scaffold, DJ Willie J was spinning discs; proceeds from the cider that was served in the courtyard went to the YWCA Crossroads Women’s Shelter. The entire building buzzed with activity and an array of completely non conforming sets of people mingled—professional local artists and also the younger art set, the music and theatre crowd, gallerists from Toronto, alongside well-heeled collectors and some folks who were just plain curious.

Around the corner St. Veronus and Le Petit Bar were hopping. Upstairs, artist Joe Stable, who has occupied his 4,000 sq. ft. corner studio (also known for legendary games of table hockey and dominoes) in the Braund Building for 40 years, had decided to transform part of it into his own gallery, ACME Arts and Sailboat Company. These First Friday art crawls have become a regular event, co-ordinated with open studios of artists in the building and other downtown galleries like Artspace and Christensen Fine Art.

cobaltconnects“Hunting for signs of culture in Peterboroughs back alleys. Didn’t take long to find @EvansContempo,” tweeted Cobalt Connects, a Hamilton-based nonprofit that champions heritage buildings and connects the creative community with space and resources.

Refusing to be pigeon-holed by either a strictly for- or not-for-profit designation, Fortin estimates he and partner Patricia Kyle have invested $100,000 in the five years he has run his galleries. Any proceeds from sales and patronage go back into advancing the local art scene. Canadian Art Magazine frequently cites an exhibition at Evans Contemporary as must-sees alongside those in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Its national reputation for excellence attracts collectors from Peterborough and Toronto. The gallery has spawned spin-offs such as the Rare Bird Salon where artists present talks and mingle. The previous third-floor gallery has become a combination of private studio space and Star X, an affordable rental gallery aimed at emerging and mid-career artists. In a city lacking professional arts education on the level of OCADU or Concordia, Fortin nurtures young local artists with space to work and studio visits, and occasional field trips to Toronto, Montreal or New York City. He still dreams of converting the level above the gallery, now home to pigeons, squirrels, and raccoons, into additional studio space to accommodate more artists on his growing waitlist.

Evans Contemporary is a case study of the evolution of a strong art scene which relies on the availability of affordable unique spaces, considerable sweat equity, and a lot of vision. It incorporates and thrives on provenance. It can’t be manufactured and it doesn’t appear overnight.

But all that may collapse as the sale of the Braund Building appears imminent.

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An arts community operates more like a hive than a series of independent businesses. Because of their economic precarity, artists widely share their resources and tools. Collaboration, socializing, and brainstorming are essential to their creativity.

Artists need space to do all this—space to create, space to rehearse, space to present, space to gather, learn, and teach.

Furthermore, artists tend to gravitate to neglected heritage and industrial buildings. In addition to being cheap to rent, these spaces are large, bright, and aesthetically inspiring. They provide adjacent and affordable live/work spaces. The presence of artists removes the stigma of ghettoization. Landlords are usually happy to cash in on the added value of the DIY improvements and inevitable rise in property value that artists bring.

In 2014 panellists from Gallery in the Attic and Hatch discussed the problems of artist spaces at A Space of Your Own, hosted by EC3. Urban planner Mark Seasons remarked that there is great capacity for culture in the city, if only the municipality would employ its fiscal resources and tools like the Municipal Cultural Plan to address the lack of different types of concentrated downtown places for art to happen.

But these needs are yet to be met. In fact, Gallery in the Attic and Hatch have since folded. The Mount has not yet materialized as an arts centre or source of affordable studios. On Talwood Avenue the Artisan Centre attracts people to their facilities from as far away as Oshawa, Port Hope, and Bobcaygeon, but ideally they would prefer space closer to downtown.

Evans Contemporary (photos by Paolo Fortin)

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A recent Hill Strategies report based on Statistics Canada data concluded that the direct economic impact of culture is ten times greater than that of sports. Despite the fact that artists earn 32% less than other occupations, culture surpasses agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting combined, surpasses the construction industry, and surpasses education services in economic value.

The City of Hamilton’s downtown employment statistics survey revealed that 320 of the 330 new jobs downtown in 2011 were in creative industries. Cobalt Connects suggests that low rents play a role in attracting this employment to the area.

The Ontario Live Music Industry Working Group states (PDF) that “small clubs and venues across the province are fundamental to the touring ecology in Canada, and have a broad impact on local tourism, economies and social and cultural scenes in Ontario’s cities and towns. They create places for artists to play, work for others in the industry and foster an appreciation of local talent. “

Heritage buildings are also much sought-after locations for film and TV such as CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries.

Even as culture benefits the economy, tourism, and the community at large, there is an important symbiotic relationship that arts communities have with nearby bars, cafes, and restaurants, which regularly donate food and beverages for openings, receptions, and fundraisers. They are the go-to venues for nightly local music, business meetings, as well as oddball mashups of art, poetry, and performance. Artists find flexible employment at these establishments, and businesses benefit significantly from their artist regulars. This delicate, interconnected fabric creates a meaningful sense of place, a supportive and exciting neighbourhood.

Organizations like Public Energy, Artspace, the Theatre on King, Mysterious Entity, Atelier Ludmila, O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk, the SLAM Poetry Collective, New Stages Theatre Company, Peterborough Academy of Circus Arts, Art School of Peterborough, the TASS student DROOL Collective, and a legion of award winning professional musicians, filmmakers, dancers, and writers rely on the downtown as their base.

It’s not difficult to connect artists’ wellbeing with the overall health of a city. Yet artists are treated like second-class citizens and the arts are the first items to be cut from a budget. As performer Kate Story puts it, artists are still seen as “flakes, liars, and thieves.”

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Last year Peterborough’s real estate prices increased by a whopping 21%. With vacancy rates low, Atria’s rental condos under construction in the former YMCA building, luxury executive lofts at George and Hunter, and new developments by Ashburnham Realty are renting upwards of twice the going market rate.

At a breakneck pace the face of our downtown is about to change dramatically and bring with it a serious shortage of affordable space. Since Peterborough obtains almost half of its revenue from property taxes, it is tempting to encourage developers for short-term gain. Peterborough and regional cities like it are getting drunk on development and stepping into the very housing crisis that is forcing people to leave Toronto.

Does Peterborough have any real vision for managing development? Where is the plan to address the needs of a burgeoning population with a significant proportion of seniors and students; to prevent the many unprotected heritage spaces of downtown from being demolished and condo-ized; to ensure low- to mid-priced housing and small business sectors are not pushed out of the core; to provide the infrastructure of schools, medical care, retail, transportation, and jobs; to avoid the destruction of the cultural milieu that attracts people to resettle in Peterborough?

Evans Contemporary (photos by Paolo Fortin)

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In Toronto, small but venerable music venues like the Hideout and the El Mocambo are shutting their doors, and the Silver Dollar Room is being demolished for a rental high rise. Arts hub 401 Richmond, the poster child for the creative economy, is imperiled by rising property taxes. Juno Award-winning songwriter Ron Sexsmith can no longer afford to live and work in Hamilton and is relocating to Stratford. If these successful models of the creative economy cannot survive, what hope do the majority of artists have?

The business and cultural communities need not be at odds. Bylaws and special tax zones can protect artist and heritage spaces. To assume that one must design for the arts community or add artistic or heritage elements to a development, is to miss the opportunity to incorporate artists’ ideas as visionary partners into the early stages of projects. Developers can leverage the arts community to their advantage, not the least of which is access to financial grants aimed at sustaining cultural spaces. A dedicated arts building can be an asset to the city.

“An artist can create work if there is no grant funding; an artist can create work without outside publicity; however, an artist needs a secure, affordable place to live and work in order to be successful and have a recognized place in the community, ” writes Pat Connelly of Blue Moon Dance company for a 2016 report entitled Artist Displacement (PDF) for the Boulder Colorado County Arts Leadership Forum.

Globally, artists live under the constant threat of displacement with no financial clout to fight back. The future of our historic downtown, its vital arts community and specifically Evans Contemporary, the Braund Building, and the dozens of artists who depend on it, hangs precariously in the balance.

 

Note: since the original publication of this article, the Parkview Homes deal to purchase the Black Horse has fallen through. There has so far been no comment from Parkview about what this means for the development.

 

Photos by Paolo Fortin and B Mroz.

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Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

troutinplaid.com
Troutinplaid

Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.